AT THE PASSION of Jesus, some jeer, some weep, some pass by. But Pilate
“To Pilate’s astonishment, Jesus made no further reply.” Such translations
miss Mark’s emphasis. What he says is that, when Jesus stays silent, Pilate
“wondered”. There’s more to Pilate’s attitude than amazement that Jesus doesn’t
try to defend himself. We read not that Pilate wondered at this or that, but
simply that he wondered — period.
Scholars who go train-spotting at weekends tell us that the word “wonder”
and its cognates (to be “amazed” or “astonished”, and so on) occur 32 times in
Mark’s Gospel. “Mark uses wonder with an intensity, frequency and mystery that
surpasses the other synoptics” (The Motif of Wonder in the Gospel of Mark by
Timothy Dwyer, Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).
The emphasis on wonder in Mark is not, as we’re sometimes told, another
example of the naïve breathlessness of his style. Nor is wonder dismissed by
Mark as a response far short of faith and understanding. Wonder in Mark is a
response to the breaking-in of the rule of God in order to save and to restore.
Wonder may not amount to discipleship — not even the so-called Acts of
Pilate claim that Pilate became aChristian — but it is nevertheless an
indispensable prerequisite of it. (The Acts of Pilate, dating from the fourth
century, is one of the many fanciful pieces of creative writing that make up
what is sometimes called “the New Testament Apocrypha”. The Acts of Pilate is
an amplified account — and its amplifications are historically worthless — of
the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.)
Only once elsewhere in Mark are people left wondering, simply wondering, as
Pilate is. A recovered demoniac tells the people of Decapolis what Jesus has
done for him. And everyone, we read, “wondered” (Mark 5.20).
The point about Decapolis was that it was abroad, Gentile territory. In the
Gospels, the Gentiles are seen as more responsive to the words and works of
Jesus than his co-religionists. The Roman Governor Pilate is as one with those
of Decapolis, as he is with those of every age whose minds are not made up,
whose certainties are never so settled that they cannot be called into
question, who do not wear their religion like a suit of armour to ward off the
Pilate wonders. Does he sense that he is the instrument of a necessity yet
more awful than that of maintaining public order in a dangerously volatile
territory? The Coptic Church commemorates Pontius Pilate as a saint. Perhaps
Pilate should be the patron saint of all who, when contemplating the passion of
Jesus, are stirred to wonder — even if to nothing more. To be sure, Pilate
hands Jesus over to be crucified, but so do we all. So do I, a dozen times a
There are others from far away who, caught up in these events, sense that
this is more than just another public execution. Clearly, Simon of Cyrene’s
sons were known to Mark’s first readers, presumably because they were
Christians. We do not know how they came to Christian faith. Perhaps they were
moved by their father’s testimony — his story of how, having once been forced
to take up the cross, he chose not to lay it down.
The Roman Governor wonders. So, it seems, does the Roman centurion. The
wording of his testimony is famously ambiguous. Did he say that Jesus was “a
son of God”, a turn of phrase that could mean no more than “something of a
hero”? Or was this the confession of one who, at the foot of the cross, comes
to the faith proclaimed in the first verse of the Gospel, that here is the Son
of God? Mark, like his master, leaves us to make up our own minds.
According to some Greek texts, the centurion is moved to testify as he does
by what he heard, as well as by what he saw. The one “word from the cross” that
Mark and Matthew record — it’s too much for Luke and John — is the cry of
dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, the words from Psalm
We must not tone down the offence of them by claiming that Jesus had the
whole of the psalm in mind, including its triumphant ending. Nor should we milk
the repeated “My God” for evidence that Jesus’s sense of relationship with God
remained unbroken. It is a cry of utter, hopeless, abandonment.
What is really going on here? Once, long ago, I had to teach “the doctrine
of the atonement” to aspiring clergy. Poor things, they had to mug up — and,
under examination, cough up — the various theories by which theologians have
tried to explain what is sometimes called “the work of Christ”.
Mark, in sharp contrast to those who lecture or preach about the atonement,
does not tell us what it all means. His account of the death of Jesus is as
sparing of homiletic commentary as it is of the grisly details of what’s done
to you when you’re crucified. In the end, the only way to find out what the
story means — “let the reader understand” (Mark 13.14) — is to read it again.
And then, like Simon of Cyrene, to shoulder the cross.